The Yardbirds Create Rock History with First Record Five Live Yardbirds
The Yardbirds famously introduced three of the greatest guitarists that the world has ever seen in Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page. But before the world came to know this pioneering blues rock band well, there was the band’s debut album Five Live Yardbirds.
The first of the great guitarists mentioned above, Clapton, would ultimately leave The Yardbirds over a dispute about its musical directions. Whereas The Yardbirds were moving towards pop, Clapton was more than ever before drawn to the blues and authentic R&B.
But Clapton’s time with The Yardbirds helped to introduce the world to what would become a thrilling new musical experience: blues-rock. This would largely play out on The Yardbird’s debut album.
But first, a little history.
The Yardbirds Make Their Start
The Yardbirds began in the early 1960’s in the suburban outskirts of London as a band called the Metropolis Blues Quartet. By 1963, the group changed its name to The Yardbirds and the lineup included Keith Relf on vocals and harmonica, Paul Samwell-Smith on bass, Chris Dreja on rhythm guitar, Jim McCarty on drums, and Anthony “Top” Topham on lead guitar.
Top Topham was only 16 when the band formed and he was under immense pressure from his family to quit and focus on “more important things.” After a short while he caved to the pressure. Now The Yardbirds were in a pickle. They needed a lead guitarist stat.
Topham’s replacement was a friend of Relf’s from art school named Eric Clapton. The decision to hire Clapton would be history in the making.
When The Rolling Stones left their residency at the Crawdaddy Club in October of 1963, The Yardbirds took over for them as the house band. During this time they were managed by Gorgio Gomelsky, who owned the club. Meanwhile, The Yardbird’s made their very first recordings when they served as the backup band for a Sonny Boy Williamson II tour.
At the same time, The Yardbirds evolved beyond playing straight covers of American R&B and blues songs when they incorporated what came to be known as the “Rave Up” into their music. The “Rave Ups” were extended, sped-up and ferocious instrumental passages that thrilled the crowd and whipped them up into a frenzy.
After touring with Williamson II, the band signed a contract with Columbia Records. In 1964, they would record two singles that included “I Wish You Would” by Chicago blues musician Billy Boy Arnold and “Good Morning Little Schoolgirl” by Sonny Boy Williamson I.
These singles had little success but Gomelsky was able to convince Columbia to do a live Yardbirds album. Partially due to the incorporation of the Rave Up, The Yardbirds had become a popular live act. So why not try for a successful live album?
And so they did.
Five Live Yardbirds
The band recorded Five Live Yardbirds at the famous Marquee Club in London. This record has been called by Allmusic “the best live album to come out of the ’60s”. Its song list contained 10 American blues and R&B songs.
Though the album was heavily blues based, the band still melded into the mix a more rock and roll sound on some of the album’s songs. The material culled for the album included works by blues luminaries such as Slim Harpo, Howlin’ Wolf, Sonny Boy Williamson I, Eddie Boyd, and John Lee Hooker. But it also boasted songs by Rhythm & Blues musicians and early rock and roll pioneers like Chuck Berry, The Isley Brothers and a total of three songs by Bo Diddley.
Right from the start, the album releases a torrent of pure rock and roll and rhythm and blues energy. The album’s first cut, for example, the swinging, rocking “Too Much Monkey Business”, is a wild barrage of vocal and guitar energy. Eric “Slowhand” Clapton began to forge his identity with some spine-tingling guitar wailing. While Chuck Berry’s tune would also spawn competing cover versions by such rock and roll luminaries as The Beatles, Elvis Presley, The Hollies, and The Kinks, none can compete with The Yardbirds’ sheer blues power.
“Louise”, a John Lee Hooker cover, is another shining example of The Yardbirds’ blues rock style. Keith Relf and Eric Clapton battle it out with their gritty harmonica and guitar solos, respectively. The lyrics, which Relf sings with bravado and authority, straddle that blurry line between love and lust.
If you weren’t convinced of the band’s blues-rock chops yet, their hard-edged interpretation of the Howlin’ Wolf signature song Smokestack Lightning should fully bring you on board. The Yardbirds were far from the only beat band from the time to play the tune; it was also covered by Manfred Mann, The Animals, and The Who, for instance; but The Yardbirds played it as passionately and soulfully as any of them.
Five Live Yardbirds is a fabulous introduction to the The Yardbird’s early work with Eric Clapton, to the band in general, and to the wild, early pioneering days of blues rock music. Though Eric Clapton would move on to other, even bigger projects – such as the landmark blues-rock thriller John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers with Eric Clapton, otherwise known as “The Beano Album”, this essential period in the history of the formation of blues rock should not be glossed over.
Instead, it should be listened, thoroughly enjoyed, and savored, over and over again.
– J&R Adventures
Have you read the new edition of This Week in Rock History yet? If not, you’d better head over that way now.